It must be tough being an actress in Hollywood knowing that no matter how hard you try and no matter how terrific your performance is, it will always be overshadowed by Meryl Streep. Streep, plainly put, is acting perfection. She never misses a beat and manages to give Oscar worthy performances year after year, even if the movie she’s in can’t live up to her talent. Take 2011’s “The Iron Lady” as an example, a film that was utterly wretched, but had a central Streep performance that was absolutely sublime. Only a year off will allow her competition to shine, but she shows no signs of slowing down after “August: Osage County” where she gives another breathtaking performance. The movie has some problems, but Streep (and the supporting cast) elevate it beyond its troublesome material. Expect Streep to soon be clutching yet another Oscar.
“August: Osage County” takes a look into a dysfunctional family that comes together after their father commits suicide. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is the oldest child of Violet (Streep), an overbearing painkiller junkie suffering from mouth cancer who takes her pain and anger out on those around her. Barbara is having marital issues with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor). Their daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), has become more standoffish now that she has reached her teenage years, though much of it could be due to the neglect from her parents. Barbara’s sister, Karen (Juliette Lewis), shows up with her new boyfriend, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who eventually reveals his own sick perversions. Meanwhile, their other sister, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), has sparked a romantic relationship with another member of the family, Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), a timid fellow who is distraught after missing, or perhaps intentionally skipping, his uncle’s funeral.
And the list goes on. There are even more characters to discuss, each seemingly with something to hide, and their secrets are revealed at a deliberate pace. While some of it is truly surprising and meaningful within the context of the story, much of it is superfluous in nature, including the true (and rather disgusting) relationship between certain members of the family. In particular, the relationship between Charles and Ivy is left unresolved, eventually dropping before any real effect from their actions can resonate. With so many side stories packed into a mere two hours, the film finds itself at an inconsistent pace, unable to keep up with everything it has foolishly introduced.
Where the film hits its stride is in its more focused approach, generally from a bringing together of each family member into one place. One masterful, prolonged sequence around the dinner table exemplifies this well. The scene is uncomfortable, scary, traumatic and, given all the emotions on display, kind of heartbreaking. The dialogue flows naturally, but nevertheless comes quick. Appropriately, given the source material the movie is derived from, this scene is like a play come to life and it’s fantastic. It’s this scene that allows the talented cast to show their acting chops. Roberts gives what could be the rawest performance of her career and understated performances from the likes of veteran actors Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale give the scene real weight.
This scene is also where some of the film’s dark humor becomes most prominent, though it feels incongruous when coupled with such deep drama. While there are certainly some laughs to be had in “August: Osage County,” much of it falls flat, coming off as unnecessary and, due to the source material’s dramatic intentions, kind of mean. The movie does a good job of making you uncomfortable with its drama, as it should; it needn’t fall back on harsh humor to help.
The awkward family dynamic on display in “August: Osage County” is easy to relate to, as all of us have some type of dysfunction in our own families, but upon reflection, one can’t help but wonder what the point of it all was. The material doesn’t provide any real insight into anything in particular and so much of the story is left on the table that it doesn’t resonate. But, as with December’s “Out of the Furnace,” this is a case of the acting sustaining the structurally weak film. This is hands down the best ensemble of the year and with so many standout performances from both Streep (who the Academy should just give the Oscar to now and save themselves some time) and the cast around her, it makes it easily recommendable. But if you’re looking for insight, you won’t find it here.
August: Osage County receives 3.5/5